In Zimbabwe’s rainy season, women search for wild mushrooms

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HARARE, Zimbabwe – The rainy season in Zimbabwe brings with it an abundance of wild mushrooms, which many rural families feast on and sell to boost their income.

But the bounty also comes with danger, as every year there are reports of people dying after eating toxic mold. The distinction between safe and poisonous mushrooms has evolved into an intergenerational transmission of indigenous knowledge from mothers to daughters. Rich in protein, antioxidants and fiber, wild mushrooms are a respected delicacy and source of income in Zimbabwe, where food and formal jobs are scarce for many.

Beauty Waisoni, 46, who lives on the outskirts of the capital Harare, usually wakes up at dawn, grabs plastic buckets, a basket, plates and a knife before heading to a forest 15 kilometers away.

Her 13-year-old daughter Beverly is in tow, as an apprentice. In the woods, the two join other pickers, mostly women who work side by side with their children, combing through the morning dew for shoots under trees and dried leaves.

Police routinely warn people about the dangers of consuming wild mushrooms. In January, three girls in one family died after eating poisonous forest mushrooms. Such reports trickle through every season. A few years ago, 10 family members died after consuming poisonous mushrooms.

To avoid such a fatal outcome, Waisoni teaches her daughter how to identify safe mushrooms.

“She will kill people and the company if she’s wrong,” said Waisoni, who says she started picking wild mushrooms as a young girl. Within hours, her baskets and buckets become full of tiny red and brown buttons covered in dirt.

Women like Waisoni are dominant players in Zimbabwe’s mushroom trade, said Wonder Ngezimana, an associate professor of horticulture at Marondera University of Agricultural Science and Technology.

“Women in particular are collectors and normally go with their daughters. They pass on indigenous knowledge from one generation to the next,” Ngezimana told The Associated Press.

They distinguish edible mushrooms from poisonous ones by breaking and detecting “milky liquid that leaks out” and by closely examining the color under and on top of the mushrooms, he said. They also look for good collection points such as anthills, the areas near certain types of native trees and decaying baobab trees, he said.

About one in four women looking for forest mushrooms is often accompanied by their daughters, according to research by Ngezimana and colleagues at the university in 2021. In “only a few cases” – 1.4% – mothers were accompanied by a boy child .

“Mothers were more knowledgeable about wild edible mushrooms compared to their counterparts – fathers,” the researchers noted. The researchers interviewed nearly 100 people and observed the mushroom collection in Binga, a district in western Zimbabwe where the cultivation of Zimbabwe’s staple food, maize, is largely unviable due to drought and poor land quality. Many families in the Binga are too poor to afford basic food and other items.

The mushroom season is therefore important for the families. On average, each family earned just over $100 per month selling wild mushrooms, in addition to relying on the fungi for their own household food consumption, according to the study.

Due in large part to harsh weather, about a quarter of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people are food insecure, meaning they are unsure where their next meal will come from, aid agencies said. Zimbabwe has one of the highest food inflation rates in the world at 264%, according to the International Monetary Fund.

To promote safe mushroom consumption and year-round income generation, the government promotes small-scale commercial production of certain species, such as oyster mushrooms.

But it seems that the wild species remain the most popular.

“They come in as a better delicacy. Even the aroma is completely different from the mushroom we make commercially, so people love them and in the process, communities make some money,” said Ngezimana.

Waisoni, the Harare trader, says the wild mushrooms have helped her get children to school and also weather the harsh economic conditions that have plagued Zimbabwe over the past two decades.

Her pre-dawn journey to the forest marks just the beginning of a day-long process. Waisoni heads out of the bush onto a busy highway. With a knife and water, she cleans the mushrooms before joining fierce competition from other mushroom vendors in hopes of attracting passing motorists.

A speeding motorist frantically honked his horn to warn traders on the side of the road to drive away. Instead, the salesmen rushed forward, tripping over each other in hopes of scoring a sale.

A motorist, Simbisai Rusenya, stopped and said he could not pass the seasonal wild mushrooms. But because he was aware of the reported deaths from toxic substances, he needed some convincing before making the purchase.

“Looks tasty, but won’t it kill my family?” he asked.

Waisoni randomly picked a bud from her basket and chewed it gently to reassure him. “To see?” she said, “It’s safe!”

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